Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday dropped out ofthe race for the Republican presidentialnomination and endorsed Newt Gingrich, adding afresh layer of unpredictability to the campaigntwo days before the South Carolina primary.
"Newt's not perfect, but who among us is?" Perrysaid. He called the former House speaker a"conservative visionary" best suited to replaceBarack Obama in the White House.
While the ultimate impact of Perry's decision wasunclear, it reduced the number of conservativechallengers to Mitt Romney. The decision alsoreinforced the perception that Gingrich is thecandidate on the move in the final hours of theSouth Carolina campaign, and that front-runnerRomney is struggling to hold onto his lead there.
Perry had scarcely finished speaking when Gingrichissued a statement welcoming the endorsement. "Iask the supporters of Governor Perry to look at myrecord of balancing the budget, cutting spending,reforming welfare, and enacting pro-growthpolicies to create millions of new jobs and humblyask for their vote," Gingrich said.
Romney reacted by praising Perry for running "acampaign based upon love of country andconservative principles" and saying he "has earneda place of prominence as a leader in our party."
Perry said he decided to suspend his campaignafter concluding "there is no viable path forwardfor me."
Spokesman Ray Sullivan said money was also afactor: "We have spent the bulk of our funds."Perry chose to drop out before Saturday's primarybecause he wantedto "respect" the state's votersby giving them a choice among other candidates,Sullivan said.
Perry made his decision Wednesday night and begantelling staff and supporters, spokesman RaySullivan said. The Texas governor called Gingrichwith the news Thursday morning to inform theformer House speaker of his endorsement.
Sullivan wouldn't say whether Perry intended tohurt Romney but noted that Perry and Gingrich havea long-standing relationship and said Perry isenthusiastic about the possibility of a Gingrichpresidency. But Perry will support the candidatewho wins the Republican nomination, Sullivan said.
Perry's exit marked the end of a campaign thatbegan with soaring expectations but quickly faded.He shot to the head of the public opinion pollswhen he announced his candidacy last summer, but astring of poor debate performances and campaignflubs soon led to a decline in support.
His defining moment came during one debate when heinexplicably could not recall one of three federalagencies he had pledged to abolish. He joked aboutit afterward, telling reporters, "I stepped init," but never recovered from the fumble.
Also problematic for conservative supporters:Perry's support of a Texas policy to allowchildren of illegal immigrants to pay in-statetuition rates and his 2007 order to requireschoolgirls in Texas to be vaccinated againsthuman papillomavirus, an order later overturned bystate lawmakers.
Perry also risked backlash from elderly votersafter calling Social Security a fraud and a "Ponzischeme." He said the popular federal retirementprogram for seniors was financially unsustainableand pledged to retool it if elected president.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governorconsidered the more moderate candidate in therace, has benefited thus far from having Perry andseveral other conservative challengers competingfor the same segment of voters. New polls showRomney leading in South Carolina but Gingrichgaining steam heading into Saturday's contest in astate where conservatives hold great sway inchoosing the GOP nominee.
Perry's decision to endorse Gingrich does notnecessarily mean conservatives will rally behindthe former House speaker. Former Pennsylvania Sen.Rick Santorum, an anti-abortion champion, is stillin the race and last weekend was endorsed by agroup of evangelical Christian leaders.
And there is no guarantee the Texas donors whofueled Perry's bid will shift to Gingrich, even ifthe governor asks them to.
Romney has been working to court them in recentweeks and has also won the backing of formerPresident George H.W. Bush. Several Perrysupporters, who spoke on condition of anonymity toavoid publicly discussing their next steps beforePerry's announcement, said they have beenapproached by Romney's campaign and will supporthim as the candidate most likely candidate to facePresident Barack Obama in November.
Also in play are at least three influential"super" political action committees supportingPerry. One so-called super PAC, called Make UsGreat Again, aired more than $3.3 million worth ofads in Iowa and South Carolina supporting Perry. Aspokesman for the group did not immediately returncalls from the AP seeking comment about whom thePAC will support with Perry out of the GOP race.
Perry, 61, was relatively unknown outside Texasuntil he succeeded George W. Bush as governorafter Bush was elected president in 2000. A formerDemocrat, Perry had already spent about 15 yearsin state government when he became governor. Hewent on to become the state's longest-servingchief executive, winning the office three times,most recently in 2010.
Part of Perry's appeal came from his humblebeginnings in tiny Paint Creek, Texas. Hegraduated from Texas A&M University and was apilot in the Air Force beforewinning election in1984 to the Texas House of Representatives. Heswitched to the GOP in 1989 and served as thestate's agriculture commissioner before hiselection as lieutenant governor in 1998.
Perry's success as a politician suggested he wouldbe a strong competitor to Obama. He had never losta race in Texas, and his fight against Sen. KayBailey Hutchison for the Republican gubernatorialnomination in 2010 showed how tough he could be ona rival.